Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Battered "Penguins"* -'The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

I read somewhere that The Plot Against America by Philip Roth was the book I needed to read to understand the Trump phenomenon. It concerns an alternative reality in which Charles Lindbergh won the US Presidency and attempted to make an alliance with Nazi Germany.

The parallels with Trump didn't leap out at me, as it turned out. Lindbergh in his appearance, as described by Roth, seemed to me to have more in common with Barack Obama - "The lean, tall, handsome hero, a lithe athletic-looking man", "boyish", "at once youthful and gravely mature". Some might also argue that the foreign policy Roth gives Lindbergh - 'We will join no warring party anywhere on this globe" - also has parallels with Obama's way of looking at the world. In addition, the manner of Lindbergh's nomination - the Republican Party picks him "by acclamation" at their convention - is the polar opposite of the  way in which Trump appears to have gained the Republican nomination this year.

Not that the book is any the less good for that. It is both exciting as an adventure in alternative history and very perceptive about human beings. I found it unputdownable, and it reminded me what an extraordinarily good writer Roth is. He is brilliant at creating characters - I especially love the narrator's father and I also think there never was a better portrait of a sad lonely child than that of Seldon, nor a more poignant dialogue than the telephone conversation he has with the narrator and the narrator's mother, ("Hey, you know, I don't have any friends in school"). In addition, his writing style is impeccably unornamented - if he ever had any "darlings", he strangled them long ago, and the resulting prose demonstrates what a very good policy that is.

Another of Roth's great strengths is that, despite presenting very serious material, he retains a strong sense of the absurd. Perhaps the best example of this is the way that he has the narrator, even when surrounded by the worst dangers of his life, preoccupied by worries about his aunt's lavatory arrangements.

The narrator is, by the way, a child - or at least at the time of the events that he recounts he was one. He is the youngest in a family, which is Jewish. The rise in the significance of that ethnic quality is conveyed most clearly through the narrator's own experience:

"I realised ... my mother looked Jewish. Her hair, her nose, her eyes - my mother looked unmistakably Jewish. But then so must I, who so strongly resembled her. I hadn't known."

This is the realisation forced on so many in Europe during the real events of the Second World War - people who thought they were Austrians or French or whatever came to the unpleasant understanding that all along many of their neighbours had thought they were only and always Jews.

In the course of the book, the boy's brother becomes a cog in the Lindbergh propaganda machine, while his cousin, who is like a son in the family, goes to Canada, in order to join up and fight the Nazis. When he returns, maimed and angry, it falls to the narrator to become his "carer". The relationship between the cousin and his younger helper is unflinchingly imagined and portrayed with great wisdom.  While the situation of the younger boy helping the older may suggest something out of Louisa M Alcott, Roth never sentimentalises nor simplifies life's complexity. There are no saints or heroes in his world - that view of things is what leads to idolatry and figures like Lindbergh. In fact, Roth shows us that even the persecuted are capable of careless cruelty. Horrible as the apparatus constructed to oppress people of Jewish origin in America is, this does not stop the narrator himself from impulsively using that apparatus to rid himself of an annoying playmate.

The only bit of the book that does not work, in my view, is the part of the section titled Bad Days in which, in place of the narrator, we are given paragraph after paragraph supposedly drawn from the Archives of Newark's Newsreel Theatre. I haven't a solution to offer for how to restructure the book to remove this and I really don't feel I should quibble over a small flaw in a very good book.  Roth succeeds in creating a fully convincing scenario in which American isolationists and Nazi-sympathisers gain the upper hand. He evokes the banality and terror that might arise from such a turn of events and creates a vivid and sympathetic collection of characters whose fates  matter to the reader. I highly recommend tne novel.

*In this case not actually a Penguin, but a Vintage paperback


  1. It was me - I tweeted about the relevance to the rise of Trump. I wasn't comparing Lindbergh to Trump, but felt that the novel very ably demonstrated how quickly a democracy can become debased.

    1. I'm so glad you did - it is such a good book.